Ward County augments public safety funds

Help available for communication upgrades

Ward County emergency response agencies could get more help from the county toward upgrading their communication equipment.

Local fire and police departments are faced with replacing their existing VHF hand-held radios with 800 megahertz radios to be compatible with the new Statewide Interoperable Radio Network (SIRN). Ward County allocated a portion of its federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to several community responders last year to help with that cost.

On Tuesday, the commission agreed to open applications for additional requests because of the availability of some unallocated ARPA money, including about $150,000 in interest collected on money waiting to be spent. Departments have until April 30 to apply.

Kelly Haugen, Ward County Emergency Management director, said a survey of departments found a need remains for $268,102 to purchase radios. The Donnybrook Fire Department recently submitted a request for $16,192.

Haugen said agencies across the state will be transitioning to the new network in waves. State Radio officially makes the change in 2025, and most of Ward County’s neighboring counties are transitioning sometime in 2024, although Mountrail County hopes to accomplish the change this year, he said.

“We would like to shut the VHF system off at the end of the year because it’s costing us about $76,000 a year to maintain,” Haugen said, speaking for the county’s 9-1-1 Committee.

The 2019 Legislature authorized the SIRN project, and construction launched shortly after. When complete, it will greatly enhance public safety radio communications, allowing for local and cross-jurisdictional interoperability. SIRN also is constructed to address lack of coverage and communication gaps identified as key concerns of first responders across the state.

The new network also will impact the operation of outdoor warning sirens. Haugen said each siren will need new equipment to function within the new system.

The county commission adopted the 9-1-1 Committee recommendation to offer communities loans at zero interest to pay for the upgrades, with repayment by Dec. 31, 2025. The money would come from the 9-1-1 operations or depreciation budgets.

Haugen said there are 30 sirens in the county that would need upgrades, although some may be discontinued instead. For instance, Burlington has indicated it wants to downsize from its current 11 sirens.

It is uncertain how many communities might want to take advantage of a loan program. Surrey already has identified funding to equip its four sirens, Haugen said. However, if all 30 were upgraded using the interest-free loans, the cost would be roughly $115,000, and the 9-1-1 program has the money readily available, he said.

“It wouldn’t increase taxes,” Haugen said.

The 9-1-1 budget is shared by Ward County and the City of Minot, so the Minot City Council also would need to approve the loan program.

Haugen said the goal is to update all the outdoor sirens with the new equipment this construction season to be ready for the shutdown of the county’s VHF system in December.


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